An Oscar winner for his documentary Man on wire and the filmmaker behind 2014’s juggernaut The theory of everythinghas James Marsh been away from the big screen for a few years (his latest project was the 2018 heist film King of thieves). But he comes to Cannes with two vibrant projects on the market. In Night boat to Tangierhe takes on Kevin Barry’s New York Times bestseller starring a cast including Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson and Ruth Negga.
That movie hasn’t been shot yet, but Marsh has already completed a completely different feature film, Dance first. A comprehensive account of the life of literary icon Samuel Beckett (the title is taken from his ethos, “Dance first, think later”), the film sees Gabriel Byrne as the Nobel laureate in a story that explores the many aspects of his younger years. years: from Parisian epicurean to World War II resistance fighter and flirtatious husband. The film, which is selling Film Constellation at Cannes, is written by BAFTA winner Neil Forsyth with a cast that also includes Sandrine Bonnaire, Maxine Peake, Aidan Gillan and Finn O’Shea (who plays a young Beckett).
Speaking exclusively The Hollywood Reporter at Cannes, Marsh discusses how to bring Beckett to the screen in a somewhat unexpected way.
I must admit I thought I knew Beckett, but when I read about Dance First I realized there was so much I didn’t know.
That’s why I wanted to make the movie. Beckett is such an interesting proposition, because of the way he wrote what he wrote and how he stands in 20th century literature. And the script was actually kind of playful – it ambush you early on. You don’t normally think of Beckett as laughing out loud or funny, but the script riffs on his work and his way of seeing the world. Essentially, it’s a look back at his life through his mistakes, and he dwells on the things he regrets most. That sounds like a downer, but in fact it is mainly love affairs.
How did the project come your way?
It is written by an interesting writer named Neil Forsyth. It grew out of a TV project he had done where Samuel Beckett met a famous wrestler named Andre the Giant. Sky liked it and they encouraged Neil to write a TV drama about Beckett, which then evolved into a movie. I had mixed feelings about doing something about Samuel Beckett – I knew a little about his time in the French Resistance and his time in Paris. I was discouraged by the script proposal, but when you read it and within three pages something really funny happened. And that was really surprising. And that’s what happens when you watch the movie – it’s not what you expect. It’s witty and light and fast-moving, so it’s almost the opposite of Beckett. So that’s how I got into it.
How did you cast Gabriel Byrne as Beckett?
When you get the script, do you think who’s going to do it? Because it’s going to be trial and error with that choice. It’s like The theory of everything and Stephen Hawking. If you’re wrong, it won’t work. Nothing works. I was only really thinking about Gabriel, to be honest. He was the first thought I had, and he responded to it pretty quickly. In Ireland, Beckett is one of the patron saints of literature, so for an Irish actor it’s a real responsibility. And quite scary, because you are judged based on Irish culture. But he felt like it. And I think it’s a really great achievement. And then a young Irish actor Fionn O’Shea plays the younger Beckett, and he looks just like Samuel Beckett. It’s creepy.
This is your first movie in a few years. Have you taken a step back?
I actually had a pretty big documentary project that ended up falling through. It just kind of collapsed because we couldn’t get people to talk, so that was kind of a distraction. I have also produced many documentary projects. And then the lockdown knocked out two projects, as well as many other victims. But Dance First was the first one I could really make after the lockdown.